Steve J. Sherman: Capturing True Essence

Photographer Steve J. Sherman has been capturing the essence of musicians since 1983. His love for music and talent for photography prompted such a specialization. He has worked extensively with musicians across the spectrum, from classical and jazz to rock, folk, and gospel. He has photographed legends like Jerry Garcia, Sting, Springsteen and Kravitz. His work has been featured on hundreds of CD and record covers, concert posters, and major newspapers and magazines worldwide. Sherman took some time to reflect on his career and share some advice with the Behance team.
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herman has been working as an independent freelancer since day one, “beholden to no one,” he explains. Over the course of Steve’s career, he has managed the ups and downs of long-term clients and has navigated a fiercely competitive industry. “I have always had at least one employee, and at my height had five employees – all on the books. I generally keep long hours – during the busy seasons, 10 to 12 hours is a relatively normal day; 14 hours all too common, 16 to 18 certainly not unheard of.”Sherman has managed to maintain impeccable artistic integrity without being resistant to change. “As the photographic industry has seen a seismic shift in the last 10 years from analog (film) to digital, I too have had to adjust.  My business is now 100% digital, which meant changing more than product – it meant different personnel, equipment, time allocations, and ultimately knowledge. Although I think film photography is a much more beautiful and emotive format, digital photography can achieve so much more, and is ultimately faster, more versatile, more convenient, cheaper and chemical free…”

Like many great creative professionals across industries, Sherman’s greatest frustration is his “constant battle against time.” He also works to maintain the quality and creativity at the core of his business and must work against the grain of corporate and political pressures to adhere to his standards. In one attempt to win the battle with time, Sherman has instituted ‘rush fees’ to deter clients from demands that interfere with project management. As for the political games he encounters, Sherman explains, “…this is tough, as the corporate mentality mandates you play ball their way, and they have the financial clout to demand it. By not accepting that, I lose work to certain clients but maintain my personal integrity and sense of fairness and pride.”

I live to defy conventional wisdom, and have made ALL my gains by defying conventional wisdom.

Organization did not come naturally to Sherman, but it has become a strongpoint of his business. As he recalls, “Early on, I discovered that I truly despised wasting time and energy on mundane or preventable tasks, such as searching for keys or wallets or sunglasses. I therefore ‘trained’ myself… I removed the wasted time (and it’s inherent annoyance factor) by following a simple rule of organization. Translating this to my business, I realized that I would go nuts (and lose work) if I had to spend extra time searching for specific photographs every time a magazine called. So when I started my business, I knew that a simple, limitless, coordinated and efficient numbering system was vital for my success (and peace of mind).”

“The system I devised coordinates my entire photo archive with an unlimited chronological numbering system; every job gets a number, and every film and individual image from that job carries a sub-number and letter code to tie it into the overall system.  The number and codes give me specific information at a glance (year, image format, etc.), and by using a comprehensive database, every image and every image subject and all details can be found, identified, and cross-referenced within minutes.    The numbers also allow my clients to order specific images with accuracy, avoiding mistakes (and thus, missed deadlines).”

Sherman has distinguished himself over the course of his career by questioning the status quo. He bluntly proclaims, “I live to defy conventional wisdom, and have made ALL my gains by defying conventional wisdom.  My problem these days is that it’s harder and harder to find any new conventional wisdom.”

Beyond his successes and the respect he has garnered from photographers and musicians alike, Sherman is driven by love. As he explains, “…I love music, and love photography, and I was lucky in that I found a way to combine them, As such, I can both document an ever passing era of music and musicians, and provide material aid to their careers. I can work in a creative medium that I love and work with supremely creative people, have these great musicians play for me as I work, and generally control the terms under which I work.”

Sherman has some heartfelt words of wisdom for the broader creative community:

  • “Be honest. Be loyal. Be responsible. Stand behind your work, and be true to your word. No one likes surprises, especially when money is involved. Make sure all is agreed to up front, and if you should screw up, SAY SO and apologize and try to make it whole. Be proud of your integrity.”
  • “Always follow your gut. Follow your conscience. Follow your heart and mind and better instinct. Most of all, stay true to one’s art. I must repeat this, as it’s so overwhelmingly important – STAY TRUE TO ONE’S ART.”
  • “Don’t compromise quality or creativity for commercial reasons or even commercial success – forge your success because of your uncompromised (pure) creative vision, your art. This will not only make you successful like no other, but will allow you to maintain your love for your art or craft far beyond the time you otherwise might lose your interest and/or patience and/or direction…”

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